The Black Death or the bubonic plague was the most fatal pandemic ever recorded in human history, causing an estimated 75-200 million deaths in Eurasia and North Africa. Caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis, the plague peaked in Europe between 1347 to 1351, killing an astonishing percentage of the population. Not only did the disease decimate the population of Europe, but it also resulted in political, religious, and social upheavals that changed the course of history forever. Take a look to see what it was like to live during one of the darkest periods in European history, and the effects that the plague had.
People Avoided Bathing
In the Middle Ages, people didn’t understand the importance of hygiene, especially when it came to avoiding getting sick, and that definitely didn’t change during the plague. In fact, people actually avoided bathing for several reasons.
One significant reason was that they thought that changing clothes was a sign of vanity, and therefore sinful in the eyes of God. However, the other was that they believed that bathing opened up the pores, which would invite illness. This uneducated theory continued well into the 19th century.
The Sickness Was Blamed On Jewish People
Even though Jews and Muslims were likely to become just as sick as Christians, many accused Jewish people of causing the plague as a way of destroying Christianity. Under torture, some Jews confessed that they had poisoned wells and other water sources, although this has been proven otherwise.
As a result of these confessions, the entire Jewish population of Strasbourg, Germany was given the choice of converting to Christianity or be burned at the stake. More than 2,000 were executed in one day alone in 1349.
Closed Communities Were Particularly Affected
Closed communities such as monasteries and nunneries were especially vulnerable to sickness. This is because if one person became infected, it was likely all of them would. Furthermore, nuns and friars cared for the sick which meant they were more exposed to it than anyone else.
Gherardo, the brother of the famous poet Petrarch and a monk in the monastery of Montriuex, was the only survivor of the plague in his monastery. He buried the other 34 monks by himself.
Different Types Of Plague
Today, many experts believe that the plague was caused by Yersinia pestis (Y.pestis), a bacterium carried by fleas that live on rats and other rodents. Y. pestis is known to cause three different types of plague.
The bubonic plague leads to the growth of lymph nodes, the pneumonic plague is a lung infection that causes the victim to cough up blood, and the septicemic plague is a blood infection that is almost always fatal.
It Killed An Estimated 25% to 65% Of Europe’s Population
At its peak, the Black Death earned its name for how quickly it spread and how fatal it was. Although there is no exact number when it comes to the death toll, it’s estimated that anywhere between 75 and 200 million died as a result of it.
This means that between 25% to 60% of the European population had been wiped out. However, some historians even go so far as to claim that as high as two-thirds of the population was wiped out.
It Wasn’t The First Plague Of The Middle Ages
Although everyone might have heard about the devastation that the Black Death caused in one way or another, it was not the first sickness to ravage Europe. In fact, it was the second. The first one occurred in the sixth century and is referred to as Justinian’s Plague.
Much like the Black Death, it spread quickly and caused many deaths. However, it was not lethal to the extent that the Black Death was, which is why it isn’t more commonly discussed throughout history.
Some Believed It Was The Result Of Bad Air
During the time of the plague, nobody had any idea what it was or where it came from. That was until the Y. pestis virus was discovered in the 1890s. Yet, when the plague was spreading throughout Europe, some people had some interesting theories that may have caused it.
One of the strangest is that the plague was the result of “bad air” that had been released from earthquakes. Others also believed that the alignment of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars on March 20, 1345, led to a release of bad air that created the sickness.
Experts Have Pinpointed Its Origin
Although at the time, nobody could have said where the illness came from, today, scientists have been able to track the precise moment when the plague entered Europe. In October 1347, twelve Genoese trading ships docked in the port of Messina after crossing the Black Sea.
Those who greeted the ships found all of the crew members either dead or dying of an illness that left their bodies covered in boils. Although the ships were ordered to leave the harbor, it was too late, and the plague had already begun to spread on the mainland.
It Wasn’t Always Called The Black Death
The plague that devastated Europe during the 14th century wasn’t given the title of the Black Death until much later. The name Black Death was given in reference to the way that parts of the victims’ bodies were blackened due to gangrene, necrosis, and the development of black growths in certain areas.
At the time of the plague, the sickness was often referred to as “The Pestilence” and “The Great Mortality,” among other names. The term Black Death didn’t become popular until around the 18th century.
Using The Plague As A Weapon
Although the Black Death is often associated with Europe, it was a global pandemic, meaning that it reached across the world. It killed around half of the population of China and one-eighth of the people of Africa.
From 1345 to 1346, just before the plague reached Europe, Mongol hordes were struck by the sickness as they laid siege to the town of Kaffa. As the army began to fall victim to the plague, they began launching the dead bodies of the sick over the city walls as an early form of biochemical warfare.
The Black Death Set Europe Back 150 Years
During the outbreak, the devastation of the plague had a serious effect on education at a lot of schools, especially at universities. For example, at Cambridge University, 16 out of the 40 professors died from the plague on top of the countless doctors that lost their lives trying to help others.
In terms of politics, many nobles died without an heir or a successor, and in some cases entire families were wiped out. Because of this, it’s estimated that it took Europe 150 years to recover.
Many People Were Convinced It Was The Wrath Of God
Considering that Christianity was the dominating faith at the time, it’s no surprise that the majority of people in Europe believed that the pestilence was sent from God as a punishment. Rather than simply repenting for their sins, some individuals took their penance to a whole new level.
These were groups of men known as flagellants that would walk the streets and whip themselves as a sign of penance, hoping it would spare them from the wrath of God. Not only did this not work, but walking the sickness-ridden streets with open wounds also didn’t help their chances.
It Wasn’t Just Humans That Were Affected
While a lot of people think about how devastating the plague was to the human population, we weren’t the only organisms that were susceptible to it. The disease also had the ability to kill cows, pigs, and sheep. It not only killed a lot of the livestock necessary for people to survive but also resulted in a shortage of wool in Europe.
However, one animal that the plague seemed to have little to no effect on are dogs. This is because they have a biological resistance to the plague that, unfortunately, other animals don’t.
It Greatly Influenced Culture
Before the Black Death fell upon Europe, arts such as painting, music, and literature were much lighter in their content. However, after the plague, the direction of the arts changed, with wealthy nobles commissioning works that focused on the death and destruction that had occurred.
The subject matter for many artists changed to become much darker and bleaker than most of their work before millions of people lost their lives to the illness.
It Helped Bring An End To Feudalism
There’s no doubt that the amount of death and destruction that the Black Death caused in Europe was a tragedy. However, it did have a few positive social effects, with one being the decline of feudalism.
The shortage of labor caused by the plague led to an increase in wages, which allowed the peasants to move to towns in search of higher-paying jobs. With the cheap labor source gone and land losing its value, the nobles lost a lot of their power over the common people.
A Whole Village Quarantined Themselves To Save Others
Even though many people living during the time of the Black Death didn’t fully understand the importance of hygiene or preventative measures such as quarantining, one English village did. During a reemergence of the plague in 1665, some residents of the village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England, became infected with the plague.
To prevent nearby towns from getting sick, they made the collective decision to quarantine themselves even though it meant most of the village would die. Two hundred fifty-six people died in the town, although nobody from the neighboring communities became sick.
It Wasn’t A Death Sentence
Because of how many people lost their lives during the outbreak, a lot of people might be inclined to think that catching the plague meant certain death, especially without the help of modern medicine. Yet, this is not necessarily the case, as many people who contracted the sickness recovered.
Scientists that studied the remains of the plague victims discovered that many suffered from malnutrition and other diseases before succumbing to the plague. Of course, although healthy individuals did catch the plague and die, a previously healthy person had a better chance of survival.
Nostradamus Was A Skilled Plague Doctor
Before becoming the man who claimed that he could see into the future, Nostradamus studied medicine beginning at the age of 14. During the plague, he then traveled the countryside treating victims of the Black Death.
While many plague doctors at the time had little to no idea how to cure the disease, often making matters worse, Nostradamus had a different approach. He understood the benefits of cleanliness, making sure himself and his instruments were sterile, and stressed the importance of disposing of bodies properly to stop the spread.
Doctors Prescribed Some Outrageous Remedies
Without any idea where the plague came from or how to cure it, doctors at the time started becoming desperate and were willing to try anything.
Many doctors started to theorize that foul smells would help to drive out the disease, and suggested that their patients cover the inflicted parts of their body with disgusting stuff. Unsurprisingly, this had catastrophic results, and some people that may have survived the illness died because of infection.
The First Black Death Wasn’t The End Of It
After the initial outbreak of the Black Death in the 14th century, the bubonic plague continued to ravage through Europe. For example, in 1665, London was struck once again by an epidemic of the plague which was known as the Great Plague of 1665, resulting in thousands of deaths.
The plague was then followed by the Great Fire, which severely crippled London. Then, the plague began to spread once again throughout China and India in the 1890s and eventually reached the United States. It was during this outbreak that Y. pestis was discovered, along with a cure.
Wild West Hygiene Habits: You Took Your Chances Sleeping On A Public Bed
Although not every bed in the American Frontier was made from straw and hay, many of them were. Because they weren’t cleaned often, many of these beds became infested with what became known as “seam squirrels,” or lice. However, these were just one of the many types of insects that plagued those living in the Old West.
Flies were everywhere, contaminating food with their larva as well as mosquitoes making their way into poorly insulated structures. Furthermore, few people had screens on their windows, welcoming in any kind of insect that passed by.
Soap Wasn’t A Top Priority
An associate of Billy the Kid, Frank Clifford wrote a memoir about his life in the American West, even discussing his experiences with soap. He describes a product called “soap-weed,” which Mexican women would use to wash their hair. It is made from the yucca plant and supposedly left their women’s hair “soft and clean and lustrous.”
While some people used soap-weed, many settlers relied on soap made of animal fat. These homemade soaps were known to be particularly harsh and would cause skin irritation. Furthermore, body odor was considered to be just a fact of life with many believing that having overly clean pores would subject them to germs and disease.
Clean Water Wasn’t A Guarantee
In the Wild West, finding clean water was imperative to survival, especially when traveling. Yet, it wasn’t easy to come by. Even when people believed they found drinkable water, it was always possible that an outhouse had been built upstream, potentially contaminating the water.
On the other hand, stagnant water was essentially poison as it usually attracted insects or had already been stepped in by horses. Furthermore, the rainwater that was collected using cisterns was fresh at first, but would eventually become undrinkable over time.
Dust Was A Part Of Life
In the Wild West, dust was inescapable whether you were in or outdoors. Dust storms were frequent and devastating, covering entire towns in a thick layer of dirt and grime. Sarah Raymond Herndon, a young girl who traveled from Missouri to the Montana region in the 1860s, reflected:
“Oh, the dust, the dust; it is terrible. I have never seen it half as bad; it seems to be almost knee-deep in places […] When we stopped, the boys’ faces were a sight; they were covered with all the dust that could stick on.” Of course, the presence of so much dust also caused severe respiratory illnesses.
Outhouses Were A Nightmare
As you can imagine, going to the bathroom in a shed that’s built on top of a hole in the ground isn’t the most pleasant experience. Although nobody had a problem taking care of their business outside in the bushes or the woods, outhouses were typically built near homes, and when the hole became full, it was buried, and the structure was moved to another hole.
Unsurprisingly, considering the smell, outhouses attracted all kinds of insects and were an easy way to catch a disease. There was no toilet paper at the time either, with people relying mostly on leaves, corn cobs, and grass.
There Were A Few Different Types Of Shampoo
If they were lucky, some people had access to soap-weed in order to wash their hair, but that wasn’t the only method around. Besides drinking it, whiskey served a variety of purposes ranging from a disinfectant to a shampoo.
When mixed with castor oil, it was used to wash hair, which was then rinsed with rainwater or water softened with borax. When it came to women styling their hair, it wasn’t uncommon for them to use heated pencils as rudimentary curlers.
Long Hair On Men Wasn’t Unusual
Although long hair might seem like a hassle to keep clean and something that will make you hotter, it was a popular style among men in the Wild West, with some of the most notable figures of the time sporting long tresses.
However, men didn’t just let their hair grow as long as they could. When arriving in a town, many cowboys would treat themselves to a trim, a bath, new clothes, and a shave. During the 19th century, shorter hair became the norm among men.
Disease Was Inescapable
Because of the unsanitary conditions that many people living in the Old West experienced, it was common for diseases to ravage settlements in the American Frontier. One of the most prominent was cholera, which was devastating to both Native Americans and settlers alike.
Sickness was at every turn, and it was seen as a miracle if you came across a camp or settlement where there wasn’t any disease at all. According to Sarah Raymond Herndon upon arrival at one camp, “There is no sickness in camp at all; it is marvelous how very well we are. I hope it will continue so.”
The Importance Of A Kerchief
One of the most iconic aspects of a cowboy’s outfit is his kerchief or bandana, something he couldn’t live without. They served a multitude of purposes such as keeping the dust out of their mouths and noses, protecting their neck from the sun, ears from the cold, and more.
Of course, Hollywood also likes to show them as a way for outlaws to hide their faces when committing a robbery. They were made from a variety of materials and were mostly red. To wear one, you would fold it into a triangle and tie the knot around your neck.
From Bushy Beards And Long Hair To Clean-Cut
In the late 19th century, as more dental products became available to the public, new hair care products and styles arose as well. Although the initial look for cowboys and other men in the Wild West tended to consist of a scruffy beard and long hair, this changed with the introduction of these products.
Men began to view their extra hair as another place that could harbor harmful germs, so many began to cut their hair and shave for a more clean-cut look.
Dental Hygiene Wasn’t A Thing
Back in the Old West, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and other oral care products weren’t prevalent. This meant that a lot of people suffered from severe oral issues, and when a tooth became problematic, it was usually just pulled out.
With dentists being uncommon, this task was usually performed by barbers or blacksmiths, or even the “patient” themself. Of course, besides drinking or applying whiskey, there were few pain medications available as well. All in all, oral care was horrendous, and countless people paid the price for it.
Cowboys Suffered From Fungal Infections
With the inability to properly bathe for weeks and even months at a time, few changes of clothes, and riding on a horse all day, many cowboys suffered from horrendous fungal infections.
Many of these infections appeared in the crotch, buttocks, armpits, and feet regions. They were terrible to live with because they severely itched and burned, and often times, scratching them with dirty hands and fingernails only led to further bacterial skin infections.
Smelling Like His Horse
After weeks on the trail, many cowboys were described as “smelling like their horse.” Although this saying led some to believe this was the result of a cowboy being atop his horse for extended periods of time, this is mostly the accumulation of normal skin bacteria from not being able to shower.
Being so dirty, if a cowboy was unlucky enough to have a cut or abrasion with staph or strep, they had the possibility of impetigo. Although this was not always fatal, these infections were contagious and chronic among cowboys.
Venereal Diseases Were Rampant
Unsurprisingly, with all of the intimate activity occurring within saloons and other establishments, many men and women suffered from venereal diseases. Not only was there very little information or education about these diseases, but there wasn’t a whole lot of hope of curing them, either.
With many people not even knowing that these diseases and infections existed, they carried on with business as usual, further spreading the ailments. It has even been rumored that the legendary Wild Bill Hickock contracted such a disease, although this is is just speculation and has not been proven.
Drinking Alcohol Was Not For The Faint Of Heart
Back then, many saloons served whiskey that was made up of burnt sugar, alcohol, and chewing tobacco, producing a dangerously strong alcoholic beverage. A nickname for the drink was also “firewater,” with cowboys lighting whiskey on fire to create a reaction to prove that it had a strong alcohol content.
Another popular drink at the time was known as cactus wine, which was a combination of tequila and peyote tea. Almost all the alcoholic beverages back then were far more potent than they even are today, and there was no shortage of people drinking them. Of course, all of these powerful drinks resulted in countless bar fights and deaths.
Spitting Became A Health Hazard
In the Old West, many of the men spit products, and when in a saloon, would spit it directly on the floor where spittoons lined the bar (as seen here). The saliva on the floor and the spittoons were then covered in sawdust, which became an issue due to respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
The spit-riddled sawdust was a breeding ground for germs. A lot of people slept on the floor when the saloon would rent out space to travelers. For this reason, spitting was banned in some places altogether, and to do so would mean a fine or prison time.
The Typical Diet Wasn’t All That Bad
In the Wild West, frontier cooking was greatly influenced by an individual’s location and the season. People ate the indigenous plants available as well as local game such as rabbits, squirrels, buffalo, and more. Other dried provisions such as flour, beans, sugar, would also be used and restocked when possible.
Food was often cooked simply using dutch ovens, frying pans, boiling pots, and other heavy materials. However, as settlements began to grow, so did the options for food.
Shows Were A Big Part Of The Wild West
Because life on the frontier appeared to be so exciting for those not living there, people from all over were interested to see what it was really like. Buffalo Bill capitalized on this curiosity and established Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The former Pony Express rider, soldier, and buffalo hunter created a show that displayed various aspects of what it was really like in the Wild West, and the company took off. The show traveled all over the United States and to parts of Europe as well.
Women’s Complexions Were Important
For women, a popular look at the time was to keep their skin as white as possible, and without blemishes and freckles. Many middle and upper-class women did this by either bleaching their skin or keeping out of the sun as much as possible.
If they did find themselves outdoors, chances are they wouldn’t be seen without a bonnet, gloves, and long sleeves. Unfortunately, not all pioneer women had this luxury and were exposed to the sun regardless. Many women also went against social norms and conformed more with the cowboy way of life.
Attacked At A Young Age
This young woman’s family was attacked and murdered when she was only 14. Olive Oatman was kidnapped, along with her sister, and enslaved by their captors. Later, they were sold to the Mohave people.
Both girls received distinctive tattoos on their chins, which signified that they were members of the tribe. Some people believe the tattoos were meant to mark the girls as slaves, but this doesn’t align with Mohave tradition. In the Wild West, Native American tribes were often referred to as “Savages,” a term which brutalizes their history. While it’s true they were responsible for some horrible crimes, so were the Cowboys forcing them out of their homeland.
It Was Every Man For Himself
The ambitious pioneers who left the east coast to move west weren’t only faced with harsh conditions, but frequent and brutal confrontations with the native Americans who were trying to hold onto their land.
This led to a breakdown in law and order that resulted in conflict between the pioneers and natives, and among each other. Hence the name, the Wild West. This was a continuation of the American Indian Wars, in which the pioneers and Native Americans fought fiercely against each other for land.
Camels Roamed The Plains Of Texas
Assuming that the arid region of Texas was similar to that of the deserts in Egypt, the U.S. Camel Corps was established in 1856 at Camp Verde, Texas. The Army imported 66 camels from the Middle East, and although they’re quite different from horses, the experiment was considered to be a success.
During the American Civil War, Camp Verde was captured by the Confederates, and after the war, many of the camels were sold to circuses, such as the Ringling Brothers, and others escaped into the wild. The last reported sighting of one of these wild Texas camels was in 1941. It is assumed that none are alive today.
The California Gold Rush Of 1849 Wasn’t America’s First Gold Rush…Or Second
In 1799, a young Conrad Reed found a brick of gold in his father’s field in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, and had no idea what he had found. Supposedly, the family used the brick for years, until a visiting jeweler noticed the 17-pound nugget. At that moment America’s first gold rush was underway.
Due to the amount of gold being mined in North Carolina, the government was forced to build the Charlotte Mint. Then, in 1828, gold was discovered in Georgia, the second gold rush. It wasn’t until 1848 that James Marshall made his discovery at Sutter’s Mill in California.
Saloon Girls Were In High Demand
The frontier could be a lonely place for a man on the road, but this was the case even in towns. Often, men greatly outnumbered women, especially in California. In order to entertain the men, saloons would hire girls to dance, sing, and basically keep them spending their money on drinks and gambling.
However, there was a difference between saloon girls as opposed to those with a more intimate profession. Saloon girls were typically considered to by ladies and were treated as such, also making a decent living performing at the saloons. It was still considered a dangerous profession, with many keeping knives and small pistols for protection.
A Myth Of Good Luck
Although today, many people are familiar that the horseshoe is a sign of good luck, this is a myth that came about in the Wild West. Because horses played such a critical role during the time, a superstition developed that nailing a horseshoe above a doorway or on the mast of a ship would help to ward off evil spirits.
Over time, evil spirits became less of a worry and the horseshoe became a symbol of good luck.
Cowboy Language Is Still Around Today
Since the frontier was basically a different world compared to the rest of the United States, over time, the pioneers developed their own slang terms. Some of these include “Bellyaching,” which means to complain; “Hankering,” which is to have a desire for something; and “Fandango,” which comes from the Spanish word and means a big party.
Some of these terms can still be heard sprinkled throughout English in America today, showing the impact that the Wild West had on the future of the United States.
Cowboys Didn’t Go Anywhere Without Their Chaps
Along with their bandanas, spurs, hats, and pistols, another article of clothing that few cowboys would ever be seen without is their chaps. Pronounced “shaps,” chaps were leggings that were designed to specifically protect the cowboy’s legs from rubbing up against the side of their horse or if they were riding through the brush.
Chaps were typically made from leather or suede and were attached by buckling them to trousers so they could be taken off with ease. Chaps are still widely used today by people who ride horses, either for work or show.
They Called It The Gould And Curry
Mining was an essential part of the Wild West. It was a huge part of the economy and it provided many jobs for people. This mine is located in Virginia City, Nevada. The population of a city was relative to how many resources were available in the mine.
So when the materials being mined were at a high in Virginia City, so were the number of people living there. And when the materials were gone, many cities were forced to find new industries or fall apart.
The Name’s Billy
Probably the most famous outlaw from the Wild West, Billy the Kid was a dangerous gunfighter. The man who was born Henry McCarty killed at least eight men at a very young age.
He was eventually killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett when he was caught off-guard in the dark at a friend’s home. Maybe not the most glamorous way to go, but the real Wild West rarely followed the plot movies would make you believe they did.
The Soiled Doves
Burlesque dancers in the Wild West were staples of the saloon scene. They were regarded so highly that some of them became millionaires. They were called different names based on their locations. For example, the California-based women were called “soiled doves” by the cowboys.
Any city you went to, you could be sure to find a saloon. Whether you decided to enter said saloon would have been entirely up to you.